Posts tagged one pot dinners

Cooking with Mom: Beef Pizzaiola

When I was a kid, I never thought about where my next meal was coming from. All I knew was that sooner or later my mother would call me into the kitchen from playing outside to sit down with the rest of my family and eat the dinner she had prepared for us. More often than not, her meals were inspired by her Southern Italian upbringing. Spaghetti with marinara sauce, roast chicken with potatoes and bread crumbs, stuffed eggplants and artichokes—these are the dishes I remember from my childhood and have always wanted to make my own.

Last week I invited my mother to my apartment so we could cook one of her classic Italian recipes together: Beef Pizzaiola. It’s a simple, one-pot meal of tomato sauce and chuck steak with a spicy yet comforting aroma I can recognize immediately. The word pizzaiola means pizza-style, and refers to a tomato sauce made with garlic and oregano. I tried to do some research about this recipe’s origins, but all I could find was a short note about how this humble dish doesn’t have a defined history; no one has ever laid claim to it because it’s just that simple.

Now, let me make something clear: my mother and I cooked her version of this herb-filled, meaty sauce. There are many variations of this dish online and in cookbooks, but we made the version that has existed in her Apuglian family for generations. I have no idea which recipe is more authentic than another, as every region and every tiny village in Italy has its own culinary traditions. This is ours.

My mother’s recipe is very straightforward: Take some chuck steak, a can of whole tomatoes (pureed in the food processor), a bit of garlic, a few handfuls of pecorino romano cheese, parsley, oregano, and a few glugs of olive oil, and throw it all in a big pot. I should note here that my mother does not measure her ingredients; she eyeballs them, which is why I needed to cook with her and try to write down all the steps. Anyway, the ingredients sit one on top of the other, in festive layers of green, red, and white, until they come to a boil. Then you just let the whole mixture of beef and tomatoes simmer away for an hour or so, stirring it here and there, until the meat is very tender and can be pulled apart with a fork.

Served over spaghetti with some meat on the side or as a secondo, this sauce is completely different from your everyday marinara. Dark red, abundantly spiked with gutsy oregano and salty romano cheese, pizzaiola is a hearty, in-your-face type of sauce. Infused with flavor from the slow-cooked meat, the sauce is deep and satisfying, and an appropriate remedy for these cold winter days. And while chuck steak can be rather tough, in this dish it’s transformed into a soft, satisfying bit of protein.

As you can probably tell, the pizzaiola tasted as wonderful as I remembered. I just hope it will again next time, when I attempt to make it without my mother.

Recipe for Mom’s Beef Pizzaiola

  • 1 1/2 pounds chuck steak
  • 1 28-ounce can of whole, peeled tomatoes
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup parsley leaves
  • 1/3 cup pecorino romano cheese, grated
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons dried oregano
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 pound of spaghetti

Cut each steak roughly into thirds. You should try to achieve equally-sized chunks of meat, following the natural lines of the steaks.

Pulse the tomatoes a few times in the food processor. They should be left a little chunky; they do not need to be perfectly smooth.

Combine the meat and the tomatoes in a big pot. Add the garlic, parsley, cheese, oregano, and olive oil. Do not stir.

Bring to a boil over medium heat. Lower heat and bring to a simmer. Cover. Stir every once in a while, making sure the meat doesn’t burn and the cheese doesn’t clump together. If the sauce seems to reduce too much and becomes too thick, add a little bit of water to the pot. Once the sauce is simmering, bring a big pot of salted water to boil for the spaghetti.

Cook for about an hour, until the meat is soft and breaking apart with a fork. About fifteen minutes before the sauce is done, cook the spaghetti.

When the spaghetti is drained, stir with 2 or 3 spoonfuls of sauce. Plate the spaghetti, and generously sprinkle each dish with romano cheese. Top with sauce. Serve the meat on the side or after the spaghetti course is finished. Serves 4 with leftovers. Enjoy!

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Snow Day

Last Wednesday morning I shuffled to the window in my robe and slippers, took one look at the fat, drippy snowflakes swirling around outside, and immediately gave myself a snow day. It was the morning after my birthday, after all, and as a child of February I figured I deserved it. So while thick piles of snow quickly covered the brownstones, trees, and sidewalks outside my Brooklyn apartment, I huddled under a blanket inside. I passed the hours drinking tea, watching Lost, and checking my work email here and there. When I finally finished lazing around on the couch, I made my way over to the kitchen and started cooking.

Cold, snowy days call for slow-cooked comfort food, and as soon as I heard the weather reports earlier in the week I began planning the perfect snow day dinner. I wanted something warm and rustic, a dish to make us forget the chilling winds and falling flakes outside. Florence Fabricant’s Chicken Baked with Lentils, a recipe I had saved for just such an occasion, came to mind immediately, and I made sure I had all the ingredients on hand before the snow started falling.

In this recipe, chicken thighs are nestled in an earthy cloud of cumin-spiced lentils, pancetta, radicchio, and chicken stock. Piled into a baking dish or casserole, the mixture cooks away for a tranquil hour in the oven, the liquid slowly reducing into a saucelike consistency. Soon enough, the comforting aroma of baked chicken infused my apartment, and the snow seemed very far away indeed.

When finally pulled from the oven, the spicy lentils become a complex mix of smoky (provided by the pancetta), tangy (from the radicchio), and sweet (the onions), while the chicken remains moist and tender, absorbing the essence of the lentils in a more subtle way. Dominating this dish in terms of both flavor and quantity, the legumes retain a hint of firmness, and provide a supportive bed for the meaty chicken thighs. Together they’re a hearty, one-pot wonder of a meal, and if we’re lucky enough to have another snow day, I may even have to make this again.

Chicken Baked with Lentils (adapted from Florence Fabricant’s recipe in the New York Times)

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 thin slice of pancetta (less than 1/4 lb)
  • 4 chicken thighs, patted dry
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup of finely chopped onions
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped celery
  • 2 cloves of garlic, sliced
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 cup finely chopped radicchio
  • 1/2 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh sage
  • 1 cup of French green lentils
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup water*

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a Dutch oven or another ovenproof casserole dish. Add the pancetta and cook on medium heat until golden. Remove the pancetta and set aside. Season the chicken thighs with salt and pepper and add them to the pot, skin side down. Sear until golden on medium-high heat. Remove from the pan and set aside. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Remove one tablespoon of fat from the pan and set aside. Pour out the rest of the fat and discard. Return the tablespoon of fat to the pan.

Add onions, celery, and garlic. Cook on medium until soft and translucent, about 10-15 minutes. Stir in the cumin. Add the radicchio, vinegar, and sage. Sauté briefly. Add lentils, stock, water, and cooked pancetta.

*I used 1 cup chicken stock plus 1/2 cup water because I cheated and used prepared chicken stock from a box. When I use commercial stock I like to dilute it a little bit with water. If you are using homemade chicken stock, feel free to use 1 1/2 cups chicken stock and disregard the water.

Return the chicken to the pan, bring to a simmer, cover, and place in the oven. Cook for about an hour, checking on the lentils occasionally. Cook until the lentils are tender and most of the liquid has been absorbed. Lentils should be saucelike, but not soupy. Add more stock if necessary. Add more salt and pepper if necessary, then serve. Recipe serves 3 to 4 people, or 2 to 3 people with leftovers. Enjoy!

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One More Soup, In Case We Need It

soup

I’m afraid to say that spring is in the air because I don’t want to jinx it. But I’m starting to make some adjustments: I’ve put the puffy winter jacket away in favor of my lighter wool coat. I don’t know where my hat is. And I’m thinking about dishes with ingredients like asparagus and peas. I’m probably getting ahead of myself, but I can’t help it.

So before I get carried away by the warm air and chirping birds outside, I’m going to tell you about another soup, this time a lovely, rustic combination of Swiss chard, barley, and cannellini beans. It’s hearty, healthy, and totally appropriate for fall or winter. Let’s think of it as the final chapter in my cold weather soup series, and perhaps it will be useful when that last gasp of winter rolls around in a week or two. (Come on, you know it will. I’m sure it’s getting ready to pounce.) 

There’s another interesting aspect to this soup, besides its ability to keep the cold weather at arm’s length: It marks the first time I cooked with pearl barley. I’m always looking for ways to increase the amount of grains in my diet, and I have often read that barley works well in soups and stews. Pearl barley is not the most nutritious grain out there—it is polished so that both the outer hull and the nutritious layer of bran are removed. But many people like working with it because it cooks faster and is said to be less chewy than other unprocessed forms of barley.

Mixed with the mild Swiss chard and hearty beans, the pearl barley added a light, spongy element to the soup to create a gentle, satisfying meal from start to finish. The next time I make this soup, I think I will shift some of the steps around and add the Swiss chard at the end instead of cooking it for 40 minutes as suggested in the recipe. Not only would this reduce the cooking time a bit, but I think the greens would retain more nutrients if they were cooked for a shorter period of time. So that’s my only advice for you regarding this soup. But you know what? I hope that spring sticks around and you don’t need it anytime soon.

Recipe for Swiss Chard, Barley, and Cannellini Bean Soup (Adapted from a recipe by Marcella Hazan that appeared in Food & Wine magazine many years ago. It has been in my collection for a long time, but I cannot find it online.)

  • 1 bunch of Swiss chard, washed
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 carrots, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
  • 2 celery ribs, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
  • 1/3 cup chopped canned tomatoes in their juice
  • 5 cups water
  • 1/2 cup pearl barley
  • 1 15-ounce can of cannellini beans, drained
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • Parmesan cheese

Cut the leaves of the Swiss chard away from the stalks. Slice the stalks crosswise into small pieces. Slice the leaves into strips about 1/4 inch wide.

Heat the olive oil and onion in a Dutch oven or large soup pot over medium heat. Stir occasionally, until onion is slightly softer, about 5 minutes. Add the carrot and celery and cook until soft, about 7 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juices and cook for another 5 minutes. Stir in the Swiss chard and season with a bit of salt. Cover and cook over very low heat for about 40 minutes. Stir once or twice.

At the same time you start cooking the onion in the large soup pot, bring 5 cups of water to boil in a medium pot. Add the barley and simmer over low heat, partly covered, until tender. This will take about 35 minutes. Drain the barley but reserve the cooking water.

Add the beans and barley to the chard, stir, and cook for a couple of minutes. Stir in 2 1/2 cups of the barley water, season with salt and pepper, and bring to a simmer. Turn off the heat. Serve in bowls with freshly grated Parmesan. You can thin any leftovers with water if it seems too thick. Serves 4 to 6. Enjoy!

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Too Many Meatballs

meatballs2

A few years ago, restaurants in New York City couldn’t open without meatballs. From the Little Owl’s adorable sliders and Apizz’s ricotta-enhanced monsters in Manhattan, to over the Brooklyn Bridge for Sicilian-style spheres at Frankie’s 457 Spuntino, the city’s restaurants were offering all meatballs, all the time.

A look through my own recipe archive shows that I’ve also done some experimenting with the little guys. For our annual holiday party I’ve made both the pork-and-veal and beef-and-pork versions of Mark Bittman’s polpetti, otherwise known as tiny meatballs. They were so popular they disappeared as soon as they hit the table. And I never told you about Mario Batali’s turkey meatballs, which I made last year: The rosemary was so overpowering that I couldn’t bring myself to write about them. (Actually, I just looked for the recipe online. In contrast to the page I originally printed out, the current version online is completely different and does not mention rosemary at all. Hmm, very suspicious.) So far, my go-to meatball recipe is from Cook’s Illustrated’s America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook. It combines both ground beef and pork with breadcrumbs, parmesan, egg, and a touch of yogurt, creating rich, soft versions of this favorite comfort food.

But last week I tried another recipe, this one inspired by Luisa over at the Wednesday Chef. She had written a post about some marvelous pork and ricotta meatballs that she tried at a restaurant called A16 in San Francisco. (I guess that meatball trend also stretched out to the West Coast.) After reading about Luisa’s desire to replicate the meatballs at home, I decided I needed to try them too and searched for the recipe published in a recent issue of Food & Wine.

This recipe calls for ground pork, plus pancetta, ricotta, and other traditional elements such as parsley, breadcrumbs, and oregano. The meatballs are baked, not fried, in sea of crushed peeled tomatoes for 2 hours. When they finally emerged from the oven they weren’t as browned as we expected, but oh were they cushiony and rich, bursting with pork flavors from both the ground pork and pancetta. Light and soft, swimming in a thick sauce, they were the perfect food for yet another snowy evening at home.

Jim and I didn’t adjust the recipe at all, meaning that we wound up with enough meatballs for a family of six. We ate some leftovers with spaghetti later in the week and froze the rest for a weekend lunch in the near future. But it wasn’t a problem. I think most people, whether eating at home or in a restaurant, would agree: You can never have too many meatballs.

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My Lentil Soup

soup

If you’re a regular reader of this blog (or, if this is your first visit, welcome!), you may have noticed that I don’t always publish a recipe when I cook a new dish and report the results. When I follow the instructions of someone else’s recipe, I’m more comfortable providing a link or a reference to the original. I just don’t feel like it’s my recipe to post unless I’ve significantly changed at least one of the steps or ingredients.

But of course I often cook from my personal recipe collection. I have a few old standards, dishes that I’ve made so often and tailored to my tastes that I fully claim them as my own. One of these is my lentil soup.

I adapted my recipe from one of my favorite cookbooks, which also happens to be the first cookbook I ever bought for myself: A Fresh Taste of Italy by Michele Scicolone. Almost all of the pages are curled and dog-eared, splattered with various sauces and dusted with flour or cornmeal. During my first years out of college I basically learned how to cook from this book, and I still turn to it for advice when roasting a chicken or making pizza dough.

My lentil soup is a basic recipe, really, using brown or green lentils simmered with carrots, celery, onion, garlic, and tomatoes. Over the years I’ve added more tomatoes than called for in Scicolone’s original recipe. And instead of finishing the soup with escarole I add spinach, cooking it for a few minutes until it is just wilted. When I lived alone I made this soup at least twice a month during the winter, tinkering with it and memorizing the steps until it truly became my own. It comforts me in a way that no other dish does, perhaps because it’s attached to those early years of independence and culinary experimentation.

I made it recently after a long hiatus, during one of those freezing nights we experienced last week. As I spooned the soup into my bowl, I inhaled the familiar aroma of meaty lentils and sweet tomatoes. Hearty and rustic, with bright spots of orange carrots and green spinach swimming in a sea of steaming legumes, it was as satisfying as I remembered. And it was all mine.

Christina’s Lentil Soup (adapted from Michele Scicolone’s recipe for Lentil and Escarole Soup in A Fresh Taste of Italy)

  • extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 celery rib, chopped
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 1 cup chopped canned Italian tomatoes
  • 1 cup of brown or green lentils
  • 1 head of fresh spinach, washed and chopped
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • Parmesan cheese

Rinse the lentils and set them aside, picking out any small stones. Set them aside.

In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat a few glugs of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, celery, and carrot. Cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables begin to soften. This will take about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and cook for another 5 minutes.

Add the lentils to the pot. Add 4 1/2 cups cold water and bring to a simmer. Cook for about 25 to 30 minutes, covered, until the lentils are tender. Season with salt and pepper.

When the lentils are cooked, stir in the spinach. It will look like too much, but spinach cooks down quite a bit. Cook until the spinach is just wilted. If the soup seems a little too thick for your taste, stir in a bit more water. You may want to do this when heating up any leftovers as well.

Serve hot, with grated cheese. Serves 4 hungry people. Enjoy!

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Vanilla Beanery and Chicken: Pollo Papantla

Elaine Louise\'s Pollo Papantla

I first discovered my love for the vanilla bean about a year ago, when I made Jamie Oliver’s torta di more. His recipe required the real deal, not the small bottle of extract from my spice cabinet. After splitting the long pod and patiently scraping the seeds away from its skin, I was soon enthralled by its aroma and flavor. From that moment, whether I made torta di riso or panna cotta, I automatically reached for a real vanilla bean instead of extract.

Then last month I came across Elaine Louie’s One Pot recipe for pollo papantla in the New York Times. The article described a Mexican dish of chicken legs simmered in a sauce of orange juice, cider vinegar, garlic, cayenne pepper, and finally, vanilla bean. The recipe was adapted from Zarela Martinez of Zarela restaurant in midtown Manhattan. She advises that the dish is almost better on the second day, when the flavors have soaked into the chicken.

The vanilla bean was cultivated by the Aztec Indians, who used it to flavor their cocoa-based drink called xocolatl. It is native to tropical America and is produced by a specific orchid that opens only one day per year. Mature pods take almost a year to mature, and they then endure a 3 to 6 month curing process that includes a boiling water bath and repeated sweat sessions while wrapped in blankets. Their fermentation process sounds oddly familiar to a day at the spa.

From my past experiences I’ve found that these One Pot recipes make enough food to feed a small army. So instead of 6 chicken thighs I used 4, and I slightly reduced the rest of the ingredients as well. I cheated and used Tropicana instead of fresh orange juice; I just couldn’t deal with squeezing fresh juice from a sack of oranges on a weeknight after work. 

The chicken emerged from the pot sweet and smoky, browned and savory. By the second day the vanilla and citrus flavors had indeed sunk into the poultry’s flesh, leaving little extra sauce after I warmed up the chicken. In retrospect I probably didn’t need to reduce the amount of sauce in the recipe. While the chicken was not dry by any means, a little sauce to sop up would have been nice. Regardless, my little bean didn’t let me down.

Recipe for Pollo Papantla (adapted from Elaine Louie’s April 30, 2008 recipe in the New York Times)

  • 4 chicken thighs, legs split from the thighs
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1/3 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
  • 3/4 tablespoon of butter
  • 1 1/4 cups orange juice (no pulp)
  • 1 vanilla bean, split, seeds scraped from the pod
  • chopped cilantro, for garnish

Rinse the chicken under water, then pat dry with paper towels. Season both sides with salt and pepper. Heat canola oil in a large skillet or deep sided Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the chicken pieces skin side down, and brown on both sides. This takes about 5 minutes per side.

When chicken is browned, pour excess oil and fat from the pan. Sprinkle cayenne and a little more pepper over the chicken as evenly as possible, to your taste. Add garlic, sauté for 1 minute. Add vinegar, butter, and orange juice. Add scraped vanilla beans, and then add the pod itself. Stir all of the ingredients together.

Cook the chicken skin side up, uncovered for about 20 to 30 minutes. Baste occasionally with the sauce, which will gradually reduce into a thick glaze. Garnish with cilantro, and serve with tortillas or rice. If you are eating this the next day, warm up the chicken in a covered pot at 350 degrees in the oven for about 15 minutes. Serves 2-3 people. Enjoy!

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Lentils, Merguez, and Memories of Morocco

Florence Fabricant’s Lentils with Merguez

Last week’s chilly weather and first snowstorm arrived without much warning, taking me by surprise after the mild, not-really-winter we’ve enjoyed for the past few months. During such cold spells I need food that will warm me up quickly, preferably without too much effort. When I saw Florence Fabricant’s recipe for Lentils with Merguez in last week’s New York Times, I knew I had found my dish. A meal inspired by sunny North Africa was practically guaranteed to infuse our apartment with heat and comfort.

While I’m usually not one for casserole-type dishes, this recipe’s North African twist intrigued me. Three years ago, Jim and I spent our honeymoon in Morocco, where we explored the local cuisine and fragrant spice markets. If this casserole could simultaneously remind us of our trip and leave just one pot to clean, I was all for it. (Any memory of Morocco is welcome to us, as our camera was stolen on our way home and we don’t have any photos. But that’s a story for another time.)

Even though the recipe takes about an hour and a half from start to finish, it’s pretty low maintenance overall. Basically, merguez, onions and carrots are baked in the same pot with lentils, vegetable stock, and sun-dried tomatoes. In addition to the North African lamb sausage, cumin and Spanish smoked paprika contribute to the dish’s exotic vibe. After about an hour in the oven, a mixture of panko flakes, reserved merguez fat, and parsley is sprinkled over the top of the casserole and baked for 10 minutes at high heat, resulting in a bright and sunny breadcrumb crust.

Florence Fabricant’s Lentils with Merguez

Jim ramped up the spice factor with some harissa on the side, but I wanted to enjoy the casserole’s smoky comfort. The rich merguez complemented the pearl-like lentils and sweet sun-dried tomatoes while the panko crust made itself known with a subtle crunch here and there. Served with a simple salad and a glass of red wine as suggested by Ms. Fabricant, this meal indeed warmed me up as I had hoped.

The recipe is said to serve 6, so Jim and I needed three days to finish it. But for some reason, we didn’t tire of it; the memories of our summertime honeymoon in Morocco must have helped a little bit. And as promised, there was only one pot to clean.

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